This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Liberating Libya *

Rebel forces in Benghazi have risen up against the oppressive and rapacious overlords of Libya, and have their former masters on the defensive in a violent and bloody campaign that may well alter the international balance of power.

Though the previous paragraph might well have been cited from a recent newspaper report, it actually describes events that were taking place nearly two thousand years ago. The present-day Benghazi was known at the time as Bernice, an important urban centre in the region of Cyrene in what is now eastern Libya, which was chafing under the yoke of tyrannical Roman colonial rule in the early years of the second century C.E

The rebellion that erupted in 115 was spearheaded by fierce Jewish warriors, and it had a traumatic impact that continued to affect the region for many generations.

The Roman historian Dio Cassius (as recorded by a later writer) provided a lurid description of the carnage that was inflicted by the Jewish rebels. Greeks and Romans were targeted indiscriminately and subjected to barbaric treatment, and the sources estimated the death toll at more than two hundred thousand, with even greater numbers perishing in the ensuing campaigns in Cyprus and Egypt. A fourth-century historian observed that the whole region would have remained effectively depopulated had the Romans not instituted an active program of colonization by foreign settlers.

Several different names, otherwise unknown, are mentioned as the commanders of the Jewish rebellion. Dio speaks of a certain Andreas who led the insurrection in Cyrene, and Artemio in Cyprus. The church historian Eusebius identified the leader in Cyrene as Lukuas, and historians are unsure whether or not this is a different person from Dio's Andreas.

Such wild-sounding tales from unsympathetic sources might otherwise have been dismissed as unreliable Roman or Christian propaganda. There is, however, independent corroboration to prove that the Cyrene rebellion did indeed occur, and that its proportions were even more remarkable than would appear from the texts described so far.

A faint echo of the uprising survives in rabbinic literature where it is referred to cryptically as the "rebellion of Quietus" after the Roman general Lusius Quietus who was charged with the suppression of the Jewish rebels including the ones who were active in Judea. More decisively, the archaeological record from Cyrene and the surrounding region tells a story of widespread destruction, especially of pagan religious shrines, during the years in question; as well as preserving several dedicatory inscriptions testifying to the fact that structures had to be rebuilt after their recent demolition.

In the opinion of some historians, the Jewish military campaign was one of epic boldness, designed to bring about nothing less than the complete collapse of the mighty Roman empire. Although the ultimate failure of the uprising can be interpreted as proof of its basic foolhardiness, the evidence indicates that it came amazingly close to succeeding.

Of course, it is impossible to appreciate the vehemence of the rebellion without referring to the religious motivations that fuelled it. Most Jews of the time were convinced that the heathen Roman empire was the quintessential embodiment of blasphemous wickedness, and that God's patience with Rome's continuing success was about to snap. To varying degrees, this mindset was shared by Jews of nearly all religious outlooks, and it generated an immense literature devoted to apocalyptic visions of the imminent collapse of the evil empire. The most extreme proponents of this position were consolidated into the faction of "Zealots" who refused stubbornly to tolerate Israel's subjugation by any foreign power.

Indeed, it appears that the groundwork for the Libyan operation was laid long before the actual outbreak of hostilities. Shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, Josephus Flavius reports that Jonathan the weaver, a member of the extremist Zealot sect of Sicarii ("dagger-wielders") fled to Cyrene. Josephus, who was bitterly opposed to the Zealots as a group and to Jonathan in particular, paints him as a delusional and unprincipled fanatic with messianic pretensions. However, the subsequent unfolding of events suggests to some historians that Jonathan was part of a concerted Jewish military strategy that was eminently rational in its conception.

Looked at in light of this background, it would appear that the Zealots had devised a master-plan to attack Rome from its vulnerable flanks. The overextended empire was constantly subject to incursions or rebellions on its far-flung frontiers, forcing the army to frequently relocate forces from one region to another. A situation of this kind occurred in 114 when Trajan transferred soldiers from the Cyrene garrison in order to pursue his objectives on the Parthian border, leaving the north African colonies vulnerable to local uprisings and attacks. The Jews took advantage of this weakness (and of the economic havoc that Roman imperialism had wreaked upon the Cyrenean Jewish peasantry) to launch a sudden and merciless "scorched earth" assault that targeted not only military objectives, but also the physical embodiments of idolatrous religions. Evidently, the plan called for a rapid incursion into Egypt where, with expected help from the large Alexandrian Jewish community, they would be able to cripple or sever the vital economic lifeline through which bread was supplied to the imperial capital.

Even after we have made allowances for the faith in divine assistance that must surely have inspired such a scheme, there is nothing in it that strikes us as necessarily preposterous or irrational--and in fact, the strategy came quite close to succeeding. By all indications, the Cyrenian Jews were a hardy breed with a long tradition of military service under the Greek regimes. Even if they could not succeed in bringing the whole empire to its knees, they might well have managed to achieve the more limited objective of liberating the holy land from the Roman yoke. After the destruction of Jerusalem, it is likely that many proud Jews felt that they had nothing to lose in pursuing this risky new campaign.

We are naturally inclined to cheer for the Jewish freedom-fighters battling Roman despotism, and to trust them to establish a humane and enlightened new society. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suspect that if those Zealots had succeeded in their struggle, they would have established a fanatical theocracy that could cause more bloodshed and hardships than those occasioned by the Pax Romana.

Unfortunately, these are the dangers that we often face when we seek to replace an existing tyranny with an unproven new regime.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 1, 2011, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Applebaum, Shimon. Jews and Greeks in Ancient Cyrene . Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity v. 28. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979.
    • Fuks, Alexander. “Aspects of the Jewish Revolt in A.D. 115-117.” The Journal of Roman Studies 51 (January 1, 1961): 98-104.
    • Hengel, Martin. The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I Until 70 A.D. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989.
    • Hirschberg, H. Z. A History of the Jews in North Africa. 2nd ed. Leiden: Brill, 1974.
    • Horbury, William. “The Beginnings of the Jewish Revolt under Trajan.” In Geschichte - Tradition - Reflexion. Festschrift für Martin Hengel zum 70. Geburtstag, edited by Peter Schäfer, 283-304. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996.
    • Pucci Ben Zeev, Miriam. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights. Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 6. Leuven: Peeters, 2005.